Sewer Mascots

Japanese mascots are enthusiastic about all sorts of things, even underground rivers of fetid, stinking human waste. Here is a selection of my favourite regional sewage works mascots.

Earth-kun


Earth-kun (or Ass-kun, depending on how you interpret the katakana) is a globe with a manhole cover for a hat. He’s the mascot character for the Tokyo sewage system. I don’t want to know what he does with that finger!


Suisui-kun

Suisui-kun, the mascot for the Japan Sewer Association, is a colourful chap. He is a fish with incongruous human legs, presumably for wading through excrement. Suisui-kun is a cheerful fellow, but even he has bad days from time to time:

Aquan


Images of an anthropomorphic splash named Aquan adorn manhole covers in Yokosuka City, where he is a cheerleader for the local water supply and sewage system. Being enthusiastic about those sewers is no easy task- he has to deal with the floating aftermath of barracks of soldiers bingeing on Popeye’s Chicken and Pizza Hut at the city’s U.S. military base.


Yattakun

The kappa was once a fearsome beast of legend, instilling fear in the hearts of folk throughout Japan. Yattakun is a cutesy, infantilised shadow of that former glory. As if being de-clawed and neutered wasn’t indignity enough, Yattakun also has to spend his days worshipping rivers of poo.


Yattakun was voted the nation’s fourth best sewer mascot in 2014, a prestigious honour, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Japanese Prison Mascots

Japanese Yuru-chara can be found in the most unexpected of places. They bring joy to sporting events, schools, and tourist resorts, but they can also be spotted at less cheerful institutions. Prisons, for example. Correctional facilities looking to soften their image as grey and forbidding hell-holes sometimes adopt bright and happy mascots, more likely to give you a cuddle than shank you in the showers.

Waka-Pi


Wakayama Women’s Prison has housed many notorious inmates over the years, including Hisako Ishii – a senior member of the Aum Shinrikyo death cult; and Masumi Hayashi, who killed four people by poisoning a pot of curry at a summer festival.
The prison is also home to Waka-Pi – its adorable mascot. The “Waka” in her name comes from the prefecture, Wakayama, and “Pi” is the letter P, for “prison”. Her head is shaped like the mandarin oranges which are grown locally.

Nipo-Kun


Abashiri is the most infamous prison in Japan’s history. Located in the desolate frozen wasteland of Northern Hokkaido, the maximum security facility long had a well-earned reputation for being the harshest prison in the country, as well as the most difficult to escape from. In the 1960s it inspired a series of yakuza movies starring Ken Takakuru. The original site was closed in 1984, and a new medium-security facility was opened not far from the city centre. That prison is home to Nipo-kun, a mascot modeled on a traditional toy made by the local Ainu tribes.

Katakurri-chan


Katakkuri-chan is a prison warden with a giant purple flower for hair, and is the mascot of Ashikawa Prison. There are male and female incarnations of the character, both unveiled in 2013 to soften the grim and isolated image of the facility. Ashikawa has been in trouble for its harsh and inhumane treatment of inmates. One hopes Katakkuri-kun is not responsible.

Nashikan-Kun


While delinquent American teenagers spend their spring break partying in Cancun, the young delinquents of Japan get Nashikan-kun. He’s the mascot of the Nara Juvenile Detention Centre.

Ginza Willow Festival 2017


Yesterday various yuru-chara mascots from around Japan were to be found on Tokyo’s Nishi-Ginza Dori for the 11th annual Willow Festival, a festival named after the trees that line the street.

The best-known of the characters in attendance was the ubiquitous Kumamon, who soaked up most of the attention as he paraded around in a traditional robe.

Kumamon

Kumamon was joined by fellow bear, Arukuma, the official mascot of Nagano prefecture. He enjoys walking and has a variety of different hats.

Arukuma

Also at the event was the minimalistic Kitekero-kun, the “hospitalitiy section manager” of Yamagata prefecture, pictured here without his trademark rolling suitcase.

Kitekeru-kun

Gunma-chan and Mito-chan, pictured below, have a lot in common. They are both tiny and are named after their hometowns. Gunma-chan has been around since 1983 (since when he has evolved from a blue-maned horse into his current incarnation), and won the coveted Yuruchara Grand Prix prize in 2014. Mito-chan, of Mito City, Ibaraki, has only been around for four years and is modelled on the television period drama character, Mito Komon.

Gunma-chan (left) meets Mito-chan (right)

Nyango Star

Nyango Star in Harajuku Alta

The fastest rising star in the world of Japanese mascots is Nyango Star, the apple/cat hybrid from Aomori’s Kuroishi City, whose popularity is skyrocketing thanks to a series of viral videos of him drumming along like a demon to heavy metal songs.

This afternoon I was lucky enough to catch a performance by the talented musician and fruit/animal hybrid in Harajuku. In order to get the ticket, I had to buy some Nyango Star merchandise from the toy shop, Kiddyland. There was a section of the store dedicated entirely to him, with mugs, towels, toys, and cushions featuring the red character.

Nyango Star goods in Kiddyland, Omotesando

The show, nearby on the top floor of Alta, on Takeshita street, was short but entertaining. A crowd of about fifty fans, almost entirely female, cheered as Nyango star pounded the skins to X Japan songs. He also communicated with a host by writing on a notepad, and guzzled water through an extra-long straw poked through a hole in his face. He greeted the fans one by one with high-fives as we left after the show, and handed out business cards. The job-description on the cards was Manager of Kiddyland (for one day only).

The Bizarre History of the Billiken

A giant Shinsekai Billiken

If you take a stroll through Osaka’s retro mecca, Shinsekai, you are sure to notice dozens of images and effigies of a curious character known as the Billiken. A serenely smiling, Buddha-like figure, the Billiken looks a bit like the actor, Wallace Shawn, from The Princess Bride. Each statue of the cherubic character sits flat on a plinth with the soles of his feet facing outward. It is considered lucky to tickle these oversized feet, and the denizens of Shinsekai can often be spotted doing this. When I spoke to some tourists visiting Shinsekai from other parts of Japan, they told me they had assumed that the Billiken was a religious symbol. He is indeed called “the god of things as they ought to be”,  but his origins are in fact as a mascot character, and his story story begins in the U.S. of A.

Billiken bench in Shinsekai

In 1908 a mysterious rotund figure appeared to Missouri art teacher, Florence Pretz, in a dream. She drew the character and named it the Billiken. Apparently the name comes from the 1896 poem, “Mr. Moon: A Song of the Little People” by the Canadian poet, Bliss Carman.

O Mr. Moon,
We’re all here!
Honey-bug, Thistledrift,
White-imp, Weird,
Wryface, Billiken,
Quidnunc, Queered;
We’re all here,
And the coast is clear!
Moon, Mr. Moon,
When you comin’ down?

Pretz patented the design (the first ever patented god) and sold it to The Billiken Company of Chicago. Soon they were mass-producing all sorts of Billiken merchandise- dolls, statuettes, marshmallows, pickle forks, hatpins, watchfobs, and incense burners to name but a few items. The Billiken became an overnight hit.
He inspired songs, such as “Billiken Man” by Blanche Ring (1909).

Such fads were commonplace in the early 20th Century. Kewpie, a baby cupid character designed by cartoonist Rose O’Neill and which also enjoys enduring popularity in Japan, appeared the following year and was the subject of a similar craze.

The Billiken was seen by many as a tribute to then-president, William (Bill) Taft. His predecessor, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, had inspired the hugely popular teddy bear toys, and the mass-markerting of the Billiken was perhaps an attempt to replicate the teddy bear’s enormous success. There is even a terrifying hybrid of the two characters, called the Teddy Billiken.

The sinister Teddy Billiken

At the height of his fame, the Billiken became the official mascot of St. Louis University, due to his resemblance to their football coach of 1910-11, the beatific, grinning John Bender (not to be confused with John Bender, Judd Nelson’s brooding delinquent character from 1985’s “The Breakfast Club”, who is anything but beatific). The Billiken remains the university’s mascot to this day, and even made the news last year, when a new design of the character provoked a horrified reaction from the University’s students.

Even welcome in the shadowy world of freemasonry, the Billiken became the official mascot of the secretive Royal Order of Jesters, an elite Shriner group dedicated to the celebration of mirth.

Alas, within a couple of years, the initial Billiken boom was over, but his legend lived on in Alaska, where for decades Eskimos could be found selling tiny ivory Billiken figures carved from walrus tusks.

Yakitori restaurant clown Billiken

Meanwhile, the Billiken took Japan by storm. Looking like a long lost cousin of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods, the pudgy deity was a natural fit for the country. Florence Pretz claimed she had been “dreaming of all things Japanese” when she first conceived of him. She even speculated that she had been Japanese in a past life, and was photographed wearing a kimono for the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1908.

The Japanese were so accepting of “the god of things as they ought to be” that Billiken statues were enshrined throughout the country. Prewar Billikens can still be found in Kobe shrines to this day. This is like having a stained glass window of Hello Kitty in a Catholic church.

Elephantine rooftop Billiken

Japan’s best-known Billiken was enshrined in a Shinsekai funfair, Luna Park, in 1912. Since 1980, a replica of the famous Luna Park Billiken has been on display in Shinsekai’s prominent Tsutenkaku tower, and the porky fellow has been indelibly associated with the place ever since. That particular Billiken even went on to inspire a light-hearted 1996 comedy film, Billiken (directed by Junji Sakamoto), in which the titular mascot uses his power of luck to help the Shinsekai tourist board stop the demolition of Tsutenkaku tower. Today, the movie can be found on Japanese Netflix.

Billiken (1996)

And so it is that the streets of Shinsekai came to be crowded with statues and pictures of “the god of things as they should be”. While there, I bought myself a golden Billiken statuette because I could use some good luck, and it now sits proudly on my coffee table. Buying a Billiken is thought to bring good fortune, but it is considered luckier to be given one, and luckiest of all if you steal it.

Triumphant Billiken

UFO Religion Mascot

There are mascots for everything in Japan. Here is a UFO religion mascot I spotted today, distributing religious manga about the Rael movement, in Tokyo’s Nakano ward. Note the symbol on the alien’s chest- a swastika inside a star of David. The Rael movement (worshipping bisexual aliens) originated in France, but these promotional tactics are tailored to Japan.

Here are some highlights from the manga the alien was handing out.

My Attempts to Design a Local Mascot

For fun, I thought I would try to design a gotouchi-chara (regional mascot) myself. According to illustrator Jun Miura, there are rules to follow when designing one of these characters:

  1. It must convey a strong message of love for one’s hometown or local region
  2. The character’s movements or behaviour should be unique and unstable or awkward
  3. The character should be unsophisticated or laid-back (yurui) and lovable

Now, I’m confident that anything I produce is likely to be awkward and unsophisticated, so rules 2 and 3 should be easy to adhere to. If I am to follow the first guideline and be loyal to my neighbourhood, I need to design a character for the  Ikejiri-Ohashi area in Tokyo, where I currently reside.

Ikejiri Ohashi station serves the districts of Ikejiri (in Setagaya ward) and Ohashi (in Meguro ward). Although Meguro already has a mascot  (the adorable Meguron) and so does Setagaya (the black bunny, Gayan), a  little research tells me that Ikejiri Ohashi does not. Colourful signs of the ferocious feline, Sumanyan, can be seen on the local shopping street, but Sumanyan is actually the offical mascot of the Meguro shopping district association.

Meguron

Gayan

Sumanyan

Since no landmarks, wild animals, or local delicacies of any significance can be found in Ikejiri Ohashi, it would be easy to argue that the place does not even deserve a mascot. But you won’t catch me saying so- I must “convey a strong message of love for one’s hometown or local region”, Goddammit!

I decide to draw a character each for the Ikejiri and Ohashi districts, and I start doodling some ideas. Gotouchi-chara are usually based on local wildlife, cuisine, or farm produce. Since none of these things are to be found in Ikejiri Ohashi, I have to rely on the other popular source of inspiration for these characters- puns on the name of the town. Ikejiri (池尻) means “pond bottom” (but I find “Swamp-Ass” a more fitting translation during the humid summer months). The second kanji symbol (尻) actually means buttocks or rear end. Predictably, I come up with this abomination:

That’s right, an arse in business attire (the clothes representing the many local business offices). I guess I’ll call him Oshirin (お尻ン). I don’t hold any hope of Oshirin becoming an official mascot, not least because soon after drawing him, I discovered to my dismay that Ikejiri does have a mascot after all, albeit a very obscure one. He’s called Miike and was designed by a pesky local sixth grader.

Miike

Ohashi still lacks a gotouchi-chara, however, so I get to work on creating one. As well as missing a mascot, Ohashi doesn’t even have a website- it only has a population of six thousand. Clearly a mascot isn’t exactly a priority, but I draw one nonetheless. Ohashi (大橋) means “big bridge”. The name reminds me of Kamonohashi (the duck-billed platypus), so after failing to come up with anything better, I decide that drawing a platypus might be an acceptable idea. So here is Ohashin (おはしン):

For fun, I will get in touch with the Ohashi local government and see if they’re interested in Ohashin. I will probably be run out of town for having the gall to do so.

Finally, in case Ikejiri and Ohashi want to be represented together by a single mascot, I hastily drew a gotouchi-chara which combines elements of both Oshirin and Ohashin. And so, the hideous chimera that is Shiri-hashi-kun (尻嘴くん) is born:

Fukushima Mascots

I went to a disaster-relief fundraising market outside Tokyo’s Yurakucho station today, featuring appearances by various local mascots from Fukushima. These characters do a lot to raise money and promote local produce and tourism, as well as helping to lift the spirits of the local residents.

Kibitan

Kibitan is the popular mascot of Fukushima, based on the local “Kibitaki” bird (the narcissus flycatcher). He was originally created for a nineties athletics event.

Hula Ojisan

Hula Ojisan is a hula-dancing old man from Iwaki City, Fukushima. He’s a fixture at the annual Odori dance festival there.

Akabe

From the Aizu region of Fukushima, Akabe is based on the local “aka beko” cow toys, believed to ward off illness.

Hotapi

Hotapi is a peach-headed firefly from Koori Town, Fukushima.

Yaetan

Yaetan is based on the famous Fukushima historical figure, Yaeko Yamamoto, who fought in the Boshin civil war.


Minnbee

Minnbee is the mascot for Kitakata City, Fukushima.

 

Gotochi Character Festival in Sumida 2016

Here are some photos I took in May of last year at the annual Gotochi Character Festival, held near Oshiage station, under the shadow of the Sky Tree. Around ninety regional mascots were congregated at the event.

Higapyon

The Higashin news mascot takes the stage.

Monkeykuu

Monkeykuu, a stylish mascot from Hida, Takayama, has an eye for the ladies. He canoodles with his fans with such frequency it makes me wonder whether the actor inside is very committed to character or just an opportunistic letch!

Kappa No Kotarou

Kappa no Kotarou is the mascot of Sumida-ku, where this event took place. He looked comfortable on his home turf, frolicking in the park. A very benign descendant of the murderous kappas of lore.

Zombear

Watch out for the terrifying Zombear!

Inarinko

The trendy Inarinko, of Toyokawa, Aichi, flirts with a guy while she’s away from her male counterpart, Inarin.

Shinjou-kun

This year’s “Mascot of the Year” winner, Shinjou-kun, looks grumpy (his noodle-bowl hat and hair had briefly fallen off).

Konyudoukun

Konyudoukun hails from Yokkaichi City, Mie.

Yume-chan

Yume is the mascot for Takata city.

Light

“Light”, one of Dainam Group’s gang of “Moories” characters, is a light sprite. Apparently he’s done something heinous because he’s been fingered by the cops.

Koroton

Coroton the spherical pig of Maebashi City, Gunma. It must be a challenge to move in that costume!

Osaki Ichibantaro

Osaki Ichibantaro, of Tokyo’s Osaki station, hugs an adoring fan.

Todorocky

This musclebound mascot, Todorocky of Todoroki city, is not someone to mess with.

Chichai Obasan

Chichai Obasan, one of the more talkative mascots, strikes a pose.

Norimakitintaro

Norimakitintaro always has sushi on his mind. Literally.

Reruhi-san

Japan’s tallest mascot (at a towering 270cm) is a likeness of Theodor Van Lerch, an Austro-Hungarian army officer who introduced skiing to Japan.

Ayucoro-chan

Ayucoro-chan is dogged by fans, even when he’s relaxing in the park.

Kato No Jo

The helpful Jo, of Hyogo’s Kato City.

Yamada Ruma

A daruma with a human face!

Gunma-chan

The popular Gunma-chan, of Gunma prefecture, wows the audience.

World Character Summit 2016 in Hanyu (Part 3)

Here is a final selection of pictures of obscure mascots from the recent World Character Summit in Hanyu, Saitama.

Muzumuzu-kun

Muzumuzu-kun, king of Imizu City. Bring back monastic rule and put this guy in charge!

Hinojagakun and Sainobuntakun

 On the right is the potato-headed perpetual 22-year-old mascot of Hinohara Village on the edge of Tokyo. On the left is Sainobuntakun, the rhinoceros mascot of a Saitama newspaper. Imagine their children!
Sasadangon

Sasadangon of Niigata (based on the local treat, sasadango) strikes a sexy pose. Phwoar!

Wataru

The Honshu-Shikoku Bridge mascot is called Wataru. Wataru is a normal Japanese guy’s name, a peculiar choice for a being that looks like a mattress.

 Ma-Kun and Ayumin

Higashimatsuyama’s twin mascots, Ma-kun and (hiding behind her brother) Ayumin.
Oripy

Sayama city’s cherubic Oripy.

 

Tomo

Tomo is the mascot for Tomoe Milk in Koga City, Ibaragi. I got a free sample of the milk and it was very yummy.

Happy Hanyu Hanyu

“Happy Hanyu Hanyu” is the mascot of Hanyu General Hospital. Who knows what diabolical genetics experiments are going on there, if Happy is any indication?

Black Bancho

Black Bancho is a super-cool squid from Itoigawa city.

Oke-Chan

Oke-Chan is a safflower in a kimono, and hails from Okegawa city in Saitama.(There is no shortage of mascots in Saitama.)

Mochi Usagi

Niigata’s Mochi Usagi is bunny with a rice cake for a head. Is it bad that I am suddenly hungry?

 

Skinny

This eerie and enigmatic figure is named Skinny, and that’s about all I know about him. The yuru-chara equivalent of Slenderman.

Papa Tako

Papa Tako, the octopus mascot of Akashi city in Hyogo. He would make a good partner in crime for Black Bancho.

Ninjaemon

Koka City in Shiga is famous for all things ninja. Hence the mascot, Ninjaemon. It’s hard to imagine this character stealthily creeping into your house at midnight, though.

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